Dale Earnhardt likes to point out it took Darrell Waltrip 17 tries to win his first Daytona 500.
Maybe, finally, today - in Earnhardt’s 17th try - the man who has won just about everything else in stock car racing will win NASCAR’s most-coveted prize.
But, if you go by history, don’t bet on it. And don’t look for co-favorite Dale Jarrett, the 1993 winner and this year’s pole-sitter, to cut the other Dale any slack.
“Hey, I’ve got to take care of me and my team,” Jarrett said. “Earnhardt will just have to take care of himself. I figure he’ll win the Daytona 500 one of these years, but I want to win this one.”
There’s little question, though, that the sentimental favorite to finally drive under the checkered flag at the end of the 200 laps on Daytona International Speedway’s 2-mile oval is seventime Winston Cup champion Earnhardt.
“I feel like it’s going to be a competitive race,” Earnhardt said. “You’ve just got to be there at the end, dad gum it. It’s 500 miles, not 499.”
And, as Richard Childress, Earnhardt’s car owner for six of his championships, says, “We’ve won the Daytona 499 a few times.”
Still, despite a half-dozen incidents of just plain bad luck that have kept the two-time defending series titleholder from winning the big one, Earnhardt remains optimistic.
“I’m excited about it; I’m more upbeat about it than usual,” Earnhardt said.
It appears he has good reason to be upbeat after driving one of the new Chevrolet Monte Carlos to victory last weekend in the 20-lap Busch Clash for last season’s pole winners and again in one of the 50-lap, 125-mile Daytona 500 qualifying races Thursday.
In fact, it appears the Monte Carlos, replacing the Luminas that have been campaigned on the Winston Cup circuit since 1989, could be the class of the field after Chevy drivers dominated the qualifying races.
Sterling Marlin, the defending Daytona 500 winner, won the other 125 and will start third today, alongside fellow Chevy driver Jeff Gordon, who finished close behind Earnhardt in the other race.
In the fifth spot is the 48-year-old Waltrip - Mr. Enthusiasm - in yet another Monte Carlo.
“The Monte Carlo is good, and that’s all we needed, something equal to those Thunderbirds,” the threetime Winton Cup champion said. “We’re not any better than they are, but we’re equal now.
“We’ve got a little work yet to do, though. Just look back a year and you’ll see the Luminas were good, too.”
Chevrolet has won five of the last six Daytona 500s, including the past two. But Ford won 20 of 31 races last season and its second NASCAR Manufacturers’ Cup in three years.
Jarrett, who changed teams and moved from Chevrolet to Ford this winter, and 1994 series runner-up Mark Martin are the leading banner carriers for Ford after finishing third in their respective races on Thursday.
“It’s true the Monte Carlos have looked real good, but a 500-mile race is a long, long race,” Jarrett said. “At Daytona, the guy who gets the handling right for the longest time usually wins the race, no matter what he’s driving.
“The Fords should be all right as long as we make the right adjustments as the race goes on. Our car was fast off the truck, but we’ve had to work real hard to get it working right in the draft and we made a big improvement this week. Now we have something that you can just work on a little bit and fine-tune a little bit.”
Martin, whose only top-10 finish in 10 previous Daytona 500 starts was sixth in 1993, was even more positive.
“This is the best car I’ve ever had for (Daytona) Speed Weeks,” Martin said. “It’s got plenty of power and handles great, and I can pass high, low or wherever. I’ve got the best shot I’ve ever had to win the race.”
There are other contenders, too.
Rusty Wallace and Bill Elliott in Thunderbirds, Terry Labonte and Ken Schrader in Monte Carlos and Kyle Petty and Michael Waltrip in Pontiacs all are considered at least dark horses to get to Victory Lane.
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